Africa in Words Guest: Socrates Mbamalu
Now in its third year, the Aké Arts and Book Festival is perhaps not only the largest and best organised gathering of African writers on the continent, but also the most representative of significant debates and important new writing coming out of the contemporary African literary scene. Panel discussions, documentaries, plays and book chats are among the many activities that take place during the festival. This year again, Lola Shoneyin brought the best contemporary writing to one centre, Abeokuta, with festival guest ranging from Chris Abani to Taiye Selasi, Nnedi Okorafor to Mona Eltahawy and Maaza Mengiste, Frankie Edozien to Emmanuel Iduma and Dami Ajayi.
On Monday 16 November, I left Onitsha, a market town in the South East, just opposite the bank of River Niger with its noise and filthiness, its disorganization and humidity. I crossed the bridge joining the East and the West, and went off to Abeokuta, home of activists, intellectuals and Olumo rock, under which Aké is hidden. Travelling close to nine hours seemed nothing compared to my anticipation for the 2015 Aké Arts and Book Festival. I had secured a place on the festival’s Fiction Writing Workshop which would be facilitated by Taiye Selasi, Nnedi Okorafor and Helon Habila.
It was a surreal moment when I first saw each of these literary stars. Taiye Selasi was as poised and beautifully dressed in real life, as she is in pictures. So too Helon Habila was no different from the mug shots and video clips I had seen of him. The most striking thing about Nnedi Okorafor was her hair: it is real. It reminded me of a character in a book she wrote, Zahrah the Windseeker. Each of them handled different topics but also had different styles of teaching.
Taiye Selasi focused on ‘Narrative Voice’ and got us working with exercises. She listened carefully to each participant read their work, smiling and nudging us to critique each other’s pieces while participating in the exercises herself. She was strict with her three-minute timing for each exercise, so much so you would think the workshop participants were writing an exam. But in this space these exercises revealed the talent laden in young Nigerian writers, some of whom had travelled all the way from Abuja and Kaduna just for the workshop and festival. It was a privilege through this to get a glimpse into the author who wrote Ghana Must Go; to find that she knows the beginning sentences of all her short stories and even the whole first paragraph that begins her debut novel.
Nnedi Okorafor focused on ‘Editing and Publishing Your Work’. You must have heard that the major work in writing is rewriting? By sharing her experiences, Nnedi Okorafor helped us understand what this might mean for a writer in practice. Unlike other sessions where we could do exercises, here the emphasis was on listening and note-taking. She talked us through the process of editing work, from short stories (which she said need more rewriting than any other form of fiction writing) to a book length fiction (which can take as long as two years or more – of course we all gasped here!).
Helon Habila, author of Measuring Time, led his section of the workshop on ‘Broadening Your Horizon’. The idea was to introduce us to what he called set pieces in writing fiction – suicide, reflection in the mirror, and flaneur – to push us into writing out of our comfort zones. Each set piece had an exercise associated with it. However while Taiye Selasi had fed back extensively on our writing exercises, Helon Habila had a sort of cool reservation about him, with only ‘nice’ and a small smile as his comment. Of course we were all left itching for more!
Right through from the small personal details each of the writers shared about their writing practices, to the opportunity to mark this experience by taking photos with them, the Fiction Writing Workshops at 2015 Ake Arts and Book Festival offered a hugely inspiring opportunity to meet accomplished writers and learn from them. Perhaps the message that has stayed with me most strongly is that a first draft is always what it is, a first draft. And that there is only one way to writing; keep writing, for everything written can develop into something better. No piece of writing is wasted. In fact the only dissatisfaction that came from this workshop was that it was only a one day event!
Having said that, another festival highlight was that Chris Abani organised his own informal and impromptu workshop, taking us through writing tips, techniques and filling us with stories of his writing career, his writing experiences and his childhood. I am personally extremely grateful to the Ake Arts and Book Festival for making the space for these interactions and to all four of these writers for giving the time to invest in developing new writers. The experiences of interacting with and having knowledge shared by established and successful writers not only in itself forges a new writing community who are sharing and critiquing each other’s work, but it boosts confidence and enables writers to grow – especially in a country where pursuing a writing career is often viewed as synonymous to accepting madness.